Compassion & Terror

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Compassion & terrorMartha C. Nussbaum

Daedalus Winter 2003

Martha C. Nussbaum Compassion & terror

The name of our land has been wiped out. Euripides, Trojan Women Not to be a fan of the Greens or Blues at the races, or the light-armed or heavyarmed gladiators at the Circus. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

1The towers of Troy are burning. All that is left of the once-proud city is a group of ragged women, bound for slavery, theirMartha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is appointed in the philosophy department, Law School, and Divinity School. A Fellow of the American Academy since 1988, Nussbaum is the author of numerous books, including The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986), The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994), and Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions(2001). This essay was originally delivered as the rst Kristeller Memorial Lecture at Columbia University in April of 2002. Nussbaum writes, Although I am sure Paul Kristeller would have taken issue with some aspects of its approach to classical texts, it is offered as a sincere tribute to his life of committed scholarship, which did so much to keep these texts alive in and for our time.

husbands dead in battle, their sons murdered by the conquering Greeks, their daughters raped. Hecuba their queen invokes the king of the gods, using, remarkably, the language of democratic citizenship: Son of Kronus, CouncilPresident [prytanis] of Troy, father who gave us birth, do you see these undeserved sufferings that your Trojan people bear? The Chorus answers grimly, He sees, and yet the great city is no city. It has perished, and Troy exists no longer. Hecuba and the Chorus conclude that the gods are not worth calling on, and that the very name of their land has been wiped out. This ending is as bleak as any in the history of tragic dramadeath, rape, slavery, re destroying the towers, the citys very name effaced from the record of history by the acts of rapacious and murderous Greeks. And yet, of course, it did not happen that way, not exactly: this story of Troys fall is being enacted, some six hundred years after the event, by a company of Greek actors, in the Greek language of a Greek poet, in the presence of the citizens of Athens, most powerful of Greek cities. Hecubas cry to the gods even casts Zeus as a peculiarly Athenian ofcialpresident of the city council. So the name of Troy wasnt wiped out after all. The imagination of its con-


Ddalus Winter 2003

querors was haunted by it, transmitted it, and mourned it. Obsessively the Greek poets returned to this scene of destruction, typically inviting, as here, the audiences compassion for the women of Troy and blame for their assailants. In its very structure the play makes a claim for the moral value of compassionate imagining, as it asks its audience to partake in the terror of a burning city, of murder and rape and slavery. Insofar as members of the audience are engaged by this drama, feeling fear and grief for the conquered city, they demonstrate the ability of compassion to cross lines of time, place, and nationand also, in the case of many audience members, the line of sex, perhaps more difcult yet to cross. Nor was the play a purely aesthetic event divorced from political reality. The dramatic festivals of Athens were sacred celebrations strongly connected to the idea of democratic deliberation, and the plays of Euripides were particularly wellknown for their engagement with contemporary events. The Trojan Womens rst audience had recently voted to put to death the men of the rebellious colony of Melos and to enslave its women and children. Euripides invited this audience to contemplate the real human meaning of its actions. Compassion for the women of Troy should at least cause moral unease, reminding Athenians of the full and equal humanity of people who live in distant places, their fully human capacity for suffering. But did those imaginations really cross those lines? Think again of that invocation of Zeus. Trojans, if they worshipped Zeus as king of gods at all, surely did not refer to him as the president of the city council; prytanis is strictly an Athenian legal term. So it would appear that Hecuba is not a Trojan but a Greek. And her imagination is a Greek democratic (and, we might add, mostly male) imagina-

Compassion tion. Maybe thats a good thing, in the sense that the audience is surely invited & terror to view her as their fellow and equal. But it still should give us pause. Did compassion really enable those Greeks to comprehend the real humanity of others, or did it stop short, allowing them to reafrm the essential Greekness of everything thats human? Of course compassion required making the Trojans somehow familiar, so that Greeks could see their own vulnerability in them, and feel terror and pity, as for their own relations. But its easy for the familiarization to go too far: they are just us, and we are the ones who suffer humanly. Not those other ones, over there in Melos.

Americas towers, too, have burned.

Compassion and terror now inform the fabric of our lives. And in those lives we see evidence of the good work of compassion, as Americans make real to themselves the sufferings of so many people whom they never would otherwise have thought about: New York reghters, that gay rugby player who helped bring down the fourth plane, bereaved families of so many national and ethnic origins. More rarely our compassion even crosses national boundaries: the tragedy led an unprecedented number of Americans to sympathize with the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban. Yet at the same time, we also see evidence of how narrow and self-serving our sense of compassion can sometimes be. Some of us may notice with new appreciation the lives of Arab Americans among usbut others regard the Muslims in our midst with increasing wariness and mistrust. I am reminded of a Sikh taxi driver describing how often he was told to go home to his own countryeven though he came to the UnitedDdalus Winter 2003


Martha C. Nussbaum on international justice

States as a political refugee from the miseries of police repression in the Punjab. And while our leaders have preached the virtues of tolerance, they have also resorted to the polarizing language of us versus them, as they marshal popular opinion to pursue a war on terrorism. Indeed, the events of September 11 make vivid a philosophical problem that has been debated from the time of Euripides through much of the history of the Western philosophical tradition. This is the question of what to do about compassion, given its obvious importance in shaping the civic imagination, but given, too, its obvious propensity for self-serving narrowness. Is compassion, with all its limits, our best hope as we try to educate citizens to think well about human relations both inside the nation and across national boundaries? So some thinkers have suggested. I count Euripides among them, and would also include in this category Aristotle, Rousseau, Hume, and Adam Smith. Or is compassion a threat to good political thinking and the foundations of a truly just world community? So the Greek and Roman Stoics thought, and before them Plato, and after them Spinoza and (again) Adam Smith. The enemies of compassion hold that we cannot build a stable and lasting concern for humanity on the basis of such a slippery and uneven motive; impartial motives based on ideas of dignity and respect should take its place. The friends of compassion reply that without building political morality on what we know and on what has deep roots in our childhood attachments, we will be left with a morality that is empty of urgencya watery concern, as Aristotle put it. This debate continues in contemporary political and legal thought. In a recent exchange about animal rights, J. M. Coetzee invented a character who arguesDdalus Winter 2003

that the capacity for sympathetic imagination is our best hope for moral goodness in this area. Peter Singer replies, with much plausibility, that the sympathetic imagination is all too anthropocentric and we had better not rely on it to win rights for creatures whose lives are very different from our own.1 I shall not trace the history of the debate in this essay. Instead, I shall focus on its central philosophical ideas and try to sort them out, offering a limited defense of compassion and the tragic imagination, and then making some suggestions about how its pernicious tendencies can best be counteredwith particular reference throughout to our current political situation.

2Let me set the stage for the analysis to follow by turning to Smith, who, as you will have noticed, turns up in my taxonomy on both sides of the debate. Smith offers one of the best accounts we have of compassion, and of the ethical achievements of which this moral sentiment is capable. But later, in a section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments entitled Of the Sense of Duty, he solemnly warns against trusting this imperfect sentiment too far when duty is what we are trying to get clear. Smiths concern, like mine, is with our difculty keeping our minds xed on the sufferings of people who live on the other side of the world:Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of1 J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).


connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, rst of all, express very strongly his sorrow